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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

On hit pieces and legions of destroyed strawmen

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There is an ongoing case of intensifying tribalism in a part of the climate activist population.  There are prolific bloggers and twitter users that spend time attacking anyone – and I mean anyone – who doesn’t agree with them 100% of the time on every aspect of climate change activism.  Unfortunately, this leads to them making narrow interpretations, setting up and destroying strawmen, and writing obscenely character assassinations. Their works are becoming competitive: who can write the most damaging screed, or use the biggest set of words, etc.  They moved away in some respects from attacks on what they label ‘denier’s’ to people that actually agree with them on the seriousness of future climate change effects but offer differing prescriptions about what to do.  In their zeal to knock someone else down and establish themselves as the sole and ultimate arbiters of not only physical scientific truth, but also social scientific truth, they seem to forget about their core mission: motivate an apathetic public to apply political pressure to mitigate future climate change.

In the newest example, Climate Progress’ Joe Romm entitled this piece, The Brutally Dishonest Attacks On Showtime’s Landmark Series On Climate Change, which starts out with:

For instance, the piece [Global Warming Scare Tactics] repeats the tired and baseless claim that Al Gore’s 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth” polarized the climate debate.

For a piece with “Brutally Dishonest” in its lede, you might expect honestly within.  Unfortunately, this piece, like so many others, is prejudiced by Romm’s vitriol for the authors.  Here is what the piece actually says about “An Inconvenient Truth”:

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming.

See the subtle difference?  Nordhaus & Shellenberger actually wrote that Truth popularized the misconception that global warming has already increased the severity and frequency of natural disasters.  They did not write about the larger climate debate.  This argument is one Romm (and many others) is particularly fond of, but isn’t supported by their ultimate arbiter of climate information, the IPCC, which wrote about the lack of such a signal in the recently released Working Group II report: “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration, is the most important driver of increasing losses… loss trends have not been conclusively attributed to anthropogenic climate change (AR5 10.7.3)” and in a report dedicated to extreme weather: “Most studies of long-term disaster loss records attribute these increases in losses to increasing exposure of people and assets in at-risk areas (Miller et al., 2008; Bouwer, 2011), and to underlying societal trends – demographic, economic, political, and social – that shape vulnerability to impacts (Pielke Jr. et al., 2005; Bouwer et al., 2007). Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

Moreover, the authors continued to write that there were other influences beyond “Inconvenient Truth” including two other favorite targets of Romm’s: “Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.”

Probably the most critical aspect of missing climate action within the past decade went untreated by Romm: the Great Recession.  As a direct result of millions of Americans losing their jobs and houses, the depth of their concern for the environment understandably fell.  Millions more Americans knew somebody (or many somebodies) who lost their jobs and/or houses through no fault of their own.  That phenomenon had a chilling effect on American’s willingness to stick their necks out for an issue that is not impacting them to the same degree: climate change.  The 2009 Waxman and Markey could not have introduced their climate legislation at a worse time in contemporary history.  Congress provided 1/3 to 1/2 the stimulus that experts on the Great Depression said was required to restore America to full employment again.  With little hope of robust economic recovery, climate change was very much a background issue.  We’re still dealing with the short-sightedness of a paltry stimulus plan that agencies executed haphazardly.

Romm also dismisses the next part of the article – the part that he and other activists should really spend some time digesting: how to talk about climate change.  Again, activists fill blog posts and tweets with disaster porn language: apocalypse, catastrophe, end of civilization, end of the world!!!  Given the evangelical bent of many Americans, they view climate change as an act of God, not mankind.  That fundamental shift in perception turns anything else activists have to say about the topic into rubbish for many Americans.

There is a 2009 study entitled, “Fear Won’t Do It” by Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia in the UK – the same institution that was the target of an illegal email hack some years back.  The study concluded:

Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.

Well, look at that.  Denial is a natural response to disaster language and imagery that climate activists routinely employ in their communication attempts.  They go on to recommend more personally meaningful imagery and language:

The results demonstrate that communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change.

This kind of communication inherently requires more effort, which might very well be part of the reason why it isn’t employed more often by activists.  We’re all searching for paths of least resistance and quick returns on our efforts.  But if activists really believe that global warming is the penultimate problem of our species, they should be as interested in social science results as physical science results.  Pressing the latter while ignoring the former hasn’t achieved goals on the time-frame activists say is required to “avert catastrophe”.


One thought on “On hit pieces and legions of destroyed strawmen

  1. A related blog post can be found at WeatherUnderground by Dr. Jeff Masters. Here is the opening two sentences (read them and think about the psychological impact of the words he chose):

    The biggest story of our time is climate change. The stunningly severe and unprecedented extreme weather events of the past few years are just a early harbinger of the civilization-shaking events our increasingly hostile and violent atmosphere will throw at us, as Earth’s climate responds as it must to the huge changes humans have wrought.

    Now read it with my emphasis:

    The biggest story of our time is climate change. The stunningly severe and unprecedented extreme weather events of the past few years are just a early harbinger of the civilization-shaking events our increasingly hostile and violent atmosphere will throw at us, as Earth’s climate responds as it must to the huge changes humans have wrought.
    Wow. Some obvious problems jump out, don’t they? I sure am motivated to do something about climate change given this introduction.
    What’s interesting is the next few sentences strike right at the heart of the climate communication problem I identify above.

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